RogerBW's Blog

Erebus: The Story of a Ship, Michael Palin 10 October 2019

2018 non-fiction. HMS Erebus had already travelled to the Ross Ice Shelf; in 1845, she was sent to search for the Northwest Passage, and never came back.

This is the start of my experiment with Book of the Week, a Radio 4 programme which condenses a book down to something like 10% of its original content to be read out in 15-minute chunks over the course of a week.

So "the story of a ship" is very much cut down in this format, with only a brief mention of the ship's early life and the Antarctic trip, to concentrate on the preparations for and departure of the Franklin Expedition. After the last outside sighting, the viewpoint shifts to the attempts to find the expedition, and the wilful denials once evidence started to come in. (Even now there are monuments crediting Franklin with finding the Northwest Passage, which he fairly clearly didn't, though he was on the right track; the mapping done by expeditions looking for Franklin was far more significant.)

There's some reconstruction of what may have happened, but Palin wisely avoids excessive speculation; and it seems that the lead-solder and botulism theories are looking quite shaky these days.

It feels incomplete, but any honest book about the expedition must be; whether the reason was excessive lead, zinc deficiency, botulism, or just the extreme cold, it's clear that the members of the expedition were suffering from severely diminished mental capacity; their surviving notes are fragmentary at best, and while one can trace some of their movements it's impossible now to say what may have motivated them. This abridgement is framed with Palin's feeling of loss after the "One Down, Five to Go" Monty Python shows in 2014 and his search for some meaningful activity to follow them, and his nearly-successful attempt to travel to the site of the wreck after it had been discovered in 2014.

Very slight, but enjoyable. I don't think I'm likely to read the actual book, but this is a pleasing taste of it.

See also Landseer's Man Proposes, God Disposes.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 06:47pm on 11 October 2019

    I thought botulism was the current theory. What do they think now?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 06:53pm on 11 October 2019

    So did I – or lead from the solder for the tins. But as far as I can tell from some reading around the subject, the best bet is now severe zinc deficiency on top of general malnutrition.

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